The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Buffalo Sabres put on a great night of entertainment Thursday but once again the blue and white were left with a could-have-been feeling.
For the second time in three games, the Leafs lost a lengthy shootout by a 5-4 count and missed out on a badly needed point even though they were lucky enough to see most of the teams around them in the NHL's Eastern Conference playoff race also lose. By getting a single point for the shootout loss, the Leafs did manage to hang on to sixth place with 35 points.
But once again the Leafs paid the price for their continuing intermittent defensive lapses. They squandered a 3-1 lead on the Sabres and goaltender Ryan Miller, who hardly ever has a bad night against them. Miller had a tough start to the game, letting in goals by Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri in the first period and one by Mikhail Grabovski in the second. But the Leafs let him off the hook with two defensive brain cramps in the second period that allowed the Sabres to come back and tie the score.
"When you score four goals you should win," said Leafs goaltender James Reimer, who once again traded good and bad moments throughout the game. "At least we got a point.
"Yeah, it's on us goaltenders and as a team defensively. A couple things did not go our way and the puck ended up in our net. It's a concern but nothing to sound alarm bells about."
Reimer wasn't the only player who didn't seem too concerned about the fact they have exactly one regulation-time win in their last seven games. Others also seemed to shrug off any suggestion they need to give themselves a shake.
"You can't get too high or too low," Bozak said. "We're happy to get one point."
That tune may change by Monday night, as the Leafs are facing a home-and-home set with the Boston Bruins starting Saturday at the Air Canada Centre. The Bruins have had the Leafs number ever since they traded Phil Kessel to Toronto for a couple of first-round draft picks. The Leafs, who have one regulation-time win in their last seven games, are 0-2 against the Bruins so far this season.
The crucial letdown came in the second period when two defensive meltdowns let the Sabres score twice in 45 seconds to tie the score 3-3.
Leaf defenceman Mark Fraser had a shift he would like to forget on the first of those two goals. First he gave the puck away along the boards in the Leaf zone to give Sabres winger Marcus Foligno a free path to the net. Foligno missed his first chance but seconds later made good when he was left alone in front as Fraser vainly tried to get back in position.
The blame was shared on the next Buffalo goal. Bozak failed to pay attention to Jason Pominville in front of the Leafs net at the same time as defencemen Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson were unable to coordinate just who should be checking a couple of Sabres behind the net. This allowed Cody Hodgson to get the puck in front to an unchecked Pominville, who tied the score.
The Sabres took a 4-3 lead 22 seconds into the third period when defenceman Christian Ehrhoff scored a power-play goal. But Kadri, who is establishing himself as the Leafs' go-to scorer, tied the score six minutes later with his second goal of the game, also on the power play. He also had an assist.
That led to a highly entertaining final 10 minutes of the third period. Both teams traded chances while the sellout crowd of 19,070, as always seemingly evenly divided among Leafs and Sabres zealots, roared with delight.
"Yep, that's what I want to be for this team, a guy who is counted on," said Kadri, who had three assists in Wednesday's win over the Tampa Bay Lightning and was moved to the top line between James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel late in the third period when head coach Randy Carlyle was pushing buttons in the hope of another goal.
Thanks to a Nikolai Kulemin penalty with one minute and 17 seconds left in the third period, the Leafs started overtime shorthanded but killed off the penalty and then created some chances of their own. The Leafs came close several times but could not find the handle on the puck in front of the Sabres net.
This shootout did not feature the 20 shooters in last week's 5-4 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. It only went to six shooters on each side before Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller stopped Clarke MacArthur just after Steve Ott scored on Reimer to give the hosts the win.
Grabovski, snubbed by Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle in the Jets shootout, had a chance to win it for Toronto but missed the net.
"It was just one of those things; you can win them or not," Bozak said of the Leafs' second shootout loss in five days. "It's a skills competition."
Hostilities between these geographic rivals arose almost as soon as the first puck was dropped. Ott and Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf started a running feud in the second minute and a minute after that it spread.
Leaf enforcer Colton Orr precipitated a double fight at 2:09 when he broke his stick on Sabres agitator Patrick Kaleta at a faceoff. They dropped their gloves for a preliminary bout and then John Scott engaged fellow fighter Fraser McLaren of the Leafs.
This resulted in 29 minutes in penalties to Orr, including minors for cross-checking and instigating a fight and a game misconduct. His entire ice time for the evening was two seconds but he managed to leave the Leafs with four minutes in penalties to kill before departing.
The Leaf penalty killers did a nice job in killing the Sabres' four-minute power play and they took a 2-0 lead when Bozak and Kadri scored in a span of 1:16.
The Leafs lost winger Leo Komarov to an injury in the second period. Carlyle would only say he had an "upper-body injury" and would be evaluated on Friday.